M-Health: A Booming Sector Riddled With Challenge

by Sohini Bagchi    Feb 17, 2014

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Mobile is having a profound impact on the healthcare sector in India. Experts believe that m-Health not only has the potential to make healthcare more innovative, affordable and accessible, but also requires a robust IT infrastructure and strong wireless network that can handle many devices at once. Experts believe in 2014, as m-Health shifts into the mainstream, healthcare firms as well as service providers will have to leverage the technologies in the most effective way.

The m-health boom

One of the key reasons for the m-health boom is undoubtedly the meteoric rise of smartphones and tablets that are now being used to collect patient data, monitor ongoing conditions, access health information, and communicate with providers, patients, and other stakeholders. Research shows that 64% of doctors use iPhones or other smartphones, and the percentage is likely to rise in the future. Medical RFID is another mHealth technology being used in some hospitals to track items such as wheelchairs and intravenous pumps.

Dr. Pankaj Mishra, Consultant at the National Health Systems observes that today healthcare doesn’t just occur within the walls of a hospital.  For health-conscious patients, keeping well is a constant battle that requires a high rate of vigilance and monitoring.  Since physicians cannot dedicate 24 hours a day to one single patient, and remote locations become a challenge they are turning to home monitoring devices and mobile apps to keep tabs on high risk cases.

Mishra believes that the next few years will likely see an expansion of EHR-integrated m-Health applications as patient expectations increase and physicians embrace the idea of making use of the data.  The collection and analysis of these new data sets will lead to the development of new tools for heathcare professionals to make better and cheaper decisions. 

Read: M-Powering the healthcare system in India

Simple tools such as consulting peers through tele-health have been shown to reduce critical medical errors in patients and improve stroke care and cardiovascular trouble.  Similarly, gamification is gaining popularity in the global healthcare landscape and will gain momentum in india as well, believe experts.

To have a healthier workforce, many companies are turning to contests and quizzes to help employees lose weight, stop smoking, or just take the stairs more often. “It empowers people and help them develop a better sense of health problems, while at the same time, engages patients and providers alike in mobile health management in the future,” says Dr Sujit Kumar Ghosh, a senior medical consultant and professor in CMRI.

Challenges abound

While on one hand, there is no doubt that m-health is transforming India’s healthcare landscape, the sector continues to be riddled by unique challenges that are deterring its growth. Expert physician and noted author Dr Arun Gowda believes that the biggest challenge that mHealth faces is not the lack of technology, but the scarcity of the right kind of technology interventions. For any intervention to succeed there are certain components that need to be taken care of.

For example, the platform on which the information is available has to be easily discovered, easy to use, engaging and appealing. The information available should be in the language the user understands, culturally relevant, habit building, locally relevant, trustworthy and personalized. The platform should also facilitate the user to be able to reach out to experts for further information or fulfillment, he says.

“Who pays for mHealth is another question that is constantly being asked,” says Ghosh.  Is it the responsibility of the government to pay for this or do the private players and their CSR divisions step in? Is there a way where the end user pays for it? But will that impact service uptake and scale? In such a scenario, a public-private partnership that enables stakeholders to be able to drive some benefit for themselves is the key, he says.

Moreover, Gowda says there are still too many pilots, not coordinated, not scalable. “Search any database for mHealth initiatives in India and you will find hundreds of projects happening all over the place with small sample sizes. Without scale the potential to prove mHealth’s efficiency in the general population becomes a challenge.”

One way to ensure that mHealth is in alignment with this broader definition is design interventions that are aligned towards the millennium development goals (MDGs) or other metrics that a nation sets for itself, believe experts.

These challenges, however, shouldn’t dissuade implementers from jumping on the m-Health bandwagon, experts point out. With the market already reaching some level of maturity, it is expected to see a lot of development in the coming months. As technology advances and it becomes clear how one can leverage the same, more healthcare professionals and customers will depend on this concept for daily decision support and communication.